Years ago, feminist Gloria Steinem opined that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” adding for good measure that one become a “semi-non-person” after the wedding vows are exchanged. Steinem later raised some eyebrows in 2000 when she tied the knot with a wealthy younger man, but Canadian women seem to have taken her earlier views on cohabitation to heart.

According to the latest Statistics Canada results, women are marrying less, divorcing more and increasingly living on their own. In 2001, 14 per cent of Canada’s total female population aged 15 and over (more than 1.5 million women) were living alone – more than double the number in 1971. Five years ago, just 48 per cent of women aged 15 and older were legally married, down from 56 per cent in 1981. In spite of a 20-year decline in divorce rates, the 2003 divorce rate of 224 divorces per 100,000 people was roughly four times the number in 1968, when the rate was just 55 divorces per 100,000.

StatsCan’s numbers appear to correspond to a larger trend in Western society away from marriage. The percentage of Australian women living alone in 2003 reached 13 per cent, for example, up from 11 per cent in 1993.

More unsettling is the gradual increase in single motherhood in Canada. Five years ago, 20 per cent of all families with children were headed by Canada’s million-strong single moms. Of those households, about 38 per cent fell into the low-income category in 2003, compared to just 13 per cent of families led by single men.

A website, designed by TDC Marketing and Management Consultation of Brockville, Ont., offers a glimpse into the single mindset. “Judith” from Chatham writes, “I love living alone!!!” as “I work full time and when I come home, I can turn on a CD, a modest fountain, pour a cup of hot chocolate and RELAX with my cat on my lap (and) the outside world (and its problems) are gone for a while.”

While some comment-posters agree with Judith, many more seem profoundly saddened by their loneliness. “Cate,” a single mom from Toronto, writes: “I SO miss the companionship of living with someone. Little things like making a fancy meal or laying on the couch together to watch some television … I miss falling asleep with someone, waking up with them, making plans for our days together. I do not feel empowered at all by the total responsibility that comes with living alone.”

Much of this phenomenon can be traced back to simple demographics and the fact that women tend to live longer than men – a girl born in 2001 can expect to live an average of five years longer than a boy born in the same year. Nearly half of Canadian women living alone in 2001 were aged 65 and over. Still, part of the trend is also due to lifestyle choices. Ragna Stamm’ler, the president of the dating service, recently told The Toronto Star, “Women have a lot of their own things going already, so they don’t need a man per se, like they did years and years ago,” se said, adding, “They would like (a man), but they don’t need one.

Attitudes like Stamm’ler’s are common among young women in Canada, but it’s worth asking how many of them are actually happy with the single life. Is the “freedom” to spend long hours at the office or the factory more satisfying than so-called patriarchal bonds of matrimony? Are women ill-advised to focus exclusively upon their careers in early adulthood, only to find they often cannot conceive children in their late 30s?

Speaking in March 1999 to David Gergen on America’s Public Broadcasting Service, Danielle Crittenden, the author of What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: The Goddess That Failed, said that a major “social change” or “change of attitude” is needed in society, as men and women are “less willing to commit to each other” and “I think we’re just not raised having the attitude that marriage is important and we should look to doing it sooner, rather than later.”

Crittenden argued that the sexual revolution “has been very hard on women,” in part because it has made it easier for men to avoid commitment. “You look around you and if you’re not married, you’ve suddenly made it very difficult for yourself to find somebody, a man who’s committed. If you’re having a child into your 30s, how difficult the work-child struggle becomes, and in fact, you suddenly realize that your priority is no longer your job, but yet, it’s very difficult to leave your job,” she said.

Interestingly, Crittenden noted that many liberated women today “feel almost as trapped in their jobs as they did, or were told they did, in their suburban ranch homes in the 1950s,” and that they are more likely to take drugs, procreate out of wedlock or have an abortion. “I think it comes a lot from this set of (feminist) shared beliefs about how our lives should go,” adding, “And also, I think one of the most damaging beliefs of the women’s movement was a sense of equality, meaning sameness with men – not just equal before the law, equal politically, which I think we all feel today, that we feel equal in every meaningful way, but we’re not the same as men.”